What the hell? This blog — preserve of the expired author, occupying as it does a dusty corner of the interwebs free from contemporary scrutiny — has now featured two living authors on consecutive weekends. Clearly I’m courting popularity. Next thing you know, there’ll be a guest post by Ed Sheeran [please note: I have no reason to believe a guest post by Ed Sheeran to be forthcoming]. And this one isn’t even an impossible crime. Where does this road lead? Rave reviews of Cozy Baking Mysteries? Who even am I any more?
The setup of The Poisoned Chocolates Case is rightly very famous: a lady is killed when a box of chocolates given to her husband by another member of his gentlemen’s club — who himself received them unsolicited through the mail — turns out to have been laced with poison. The police, with no culprit in sight, allow six amateurs with a fascination for real life crimes to theorise and present their own solutions, each one appearing watertight until someone finds a flaw that brings the edifice down. For this conceit alone, and the genius way Berkeley uses his different sleuths to unpick the sparse and simple known facts, this book has passed into near-legend in detective fiction circles.
Writing a decent novel of detection is difficult enough, as evinced by the fact that the form virtually died out by the 1960s, so taking the classic detective story and turning into a pastiche of itself is even harder again — it has to be both a story of crime and detection and a cunning vehicle for transcending the tropes thereof while simultaneously wallowing in them. Leo Bruce did this near-perfectly in Case for Three Detectives (1936) and a great many luminaries of the form dipped their toe into such conceits with aspects of their books, plots, or characterisation, but for a full-length novel to take this on successfully is something of a challenge that it would be beyond the abilities of most mortals.
Anthony Horowitz is probably my favourite contemporary author of detective fiction, as his superb Sherlock Holmes novel The House of Silk (2011) and its genuinely exceptional follow-up Moriarty (2013) displayed an affinity for both the milieu of Holmes and the necessary misdirection and construction of a blistering plot that blindsides you at will which seems to elude many who try to walk this path these days. His earlier novel The Killing Joke (2004) isn’t really detective fiction per se, but shows a playfulness with narrative that is aware of many of the tropes of genre fiction and is worth mentioning here precisely because of how much it foreshadowed the work he does in Magpie Murders when it comes to deconstructing the classical detective and his ilk.
As a parody of the detective novel, the maverick cop genre, and the low Fantasy genre, Simon R. Green’s Hawk & Fisher takes quite some beating — it is an honestly hilarious take on the tropes of three. I don’t think I’ve laughed so much since reading…well, possibly anything; almost every page contains some wonderful joke or savage undercutting of the false sincerity of the situations encountered, not unlike William Goldman’s timeless The Princess Bride. For instance, Hawk is supposedly an expert in hand-to-hand combat with an axe, but he has only one functioning eye and therefore must lack any depth perception; it’s an absolutely genius piece of subversion, and such examples are rife. The only problem is that I have a sneaking suspicion — only a sneaking one, mind — that this book is in fact supposed to be taken seriously. Very Seriously Indeed.
So, as established yesterday, there’s much more scope in Watson than there is in Holmes. The obvious question then becomes: So what do you do with this?
Take the simple cosmetic changes out of the equation — the casting of Lucy Liu as Dr. Joan Watson in the US series Elementary, for instance, easily one of the least disruptive changes it’s possible to get away with — and what you’re left with is the fact that Watson, being our entry into the Holmesiverse, is allowed to do anything that reflects the experience and perspective of the reader. As discussed yesterday, there are aspects of the character, the constants I referred to, that don’t become him — making him the proprietor of a burgeoning dog-walking business, or a respected scholar of nineteenth century Gothic poetry, or giving him a form of OCD which means he must always cross his legs in the opposite manner to Holmes unless it’s a Tuesday in which case…, etc — but let’s put this aside as given and look at the way certain authors have expanded on Watson without desecrating him beyond all recognition.
Lately I’ve read an unusually high concentration of Holmes pastiches — Caleb Carr’s The Italian Secretary (not good), Stephen King’s ‘A Doctor’s Case’ (not terrible), Colin Dexter’s ‘A Case of Mis-Identity’ (extremely good), Michael Kurland’s The Infernal Device (loadsa fun), Steve Hockensmith’s Holmes on the Range (fabulous) and a superb piece of unpublished fan fiction sent to me via email — and it’s made me realise that while Watson, and specifically the Watsonian voice, is vital in undertaking Holmes, no-one can quite agree what Watson is, how he should be written, and this makes him far and away the more interesting of the two men when it comes to analysis.